Tool’s Justin Chancellor: “It feels like a second chance after so many years of searching”

It’s a busy time to be in Tool. Not only are they back on tour and heading to the UK very soon, they’ve also started work on ideas for the follow-up to their 2019 opus Fear Inoculum. Here, their enigmatic bassist – and all-round gent – Justin Chancellor talks new music, robots and the creative benefits of gardening…

Tool’s Justin Chancellor: “It feels like a second chance after so many years of searching”
George Garner

“Life in Tool right now?” ponders bassist Justin Chancellor from his home, as his bearded face breaks out into a big grin. “It’s really good. We’ve been taking a bit of time relaxing but we’ve also been writing music as well. We’ve been meeting a couple of days a week, putting some stuff together. It’s been really fun.”

As if the prospect of one of metal’s greatest-ever bands following up 2019’s excellent Fear Inoculum isn’t exciting enough, they’re also on the road. Up next, Tool – completed by vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones and drummer Danny Carey – hit the UK for a string of arena shows. It’s the latest victory lap on an album cycle that has recently taken in huge U.S. dates and even a surprise performance at Maynard James Keenan’s ‘Sessanta’ gig at the Hollywood Bowl for his 60th birthday, where they appeared alongside A Perfect Circle, Puscifer and Primus. It was a rare chance for Tool to play a set without all of the visual trimmings they’re accustomed to. Hell, even the dressing room situation was a little different, for one…

“We had to show up at like three o’clock for soundcheck and then, literally, we didn’t play Ænima until 10:30pm,” reflects Justin. “The show started and it was a bit like, ‘How many songs to go before we’re on? Fifteen!?’ The three of us don’t normally share a dressing room – we keep to our own little areas, but we were all sitting there on this one couch, just waiting and making small talk with each other (laughs). But it was a really wonderful vibe with Billy Howerdel, Matt Mitchell, Josh Freese – everybody was saying hi. It was really cool.”

Here, the affable bassist talks new Tool music, the art of constructing setlists, onstage fuck-ups, playing Maynard’s 60th birthday, why planting vegetables in his garden may be helping him come up with new basslines, and why he may soon be needing the services of a robotic engineer for his MTVoid project…

Maynard once told Kerrang! about everything he needs to do in order to go on tour – including not only voice rest, but even changing his diet in the weeks before hitting the road. But what is required of you? Can you just rock up on tour anytime, or is a part of you like, ‘Shit, how do I actually play this song again’?
“For starters, yeah, you’ve got to remember the songs – especially if they’re older ones, it takes a little more working-up. But for me, the main thing is physical – there’s nothing like that moment when you stand onstage in front of thousands of people and you suddenly find that you start squeezing a lot harder on your instrument. No matter what preparation you do, you need to be really strong for it. It’s quite a physical thing standing there for two hours playing those songs.”

Songs, notably, that were written in a well-lit studio and yet you suddenly have to play them in the dark…
“We actually do try and simulate that a little bit in rehearsal. We’re like, ‘Let’s make it sexy and turn the lights down’ (laughs) because it is a necessity to be able to do that. The ol’ luminous dots on my fretboard are a life-saver!”

Are there any points in a Tool set that make you do a deep inhalation before you play them – what are your squeaky-bum time moments?
“We decided at one particular festival that we were going to come out with a bang and start with Ticks And Leeches. It’s really aggressive, and very physical. I was so pumped up for the show. Danny started his very fast, circular drum intro and I went to join in and nothing happened. At all. I tried again, and nothing. I was hitting my pedals. I was looking at my amp. Nothing was happening! Danny was holding on, still doing the same thing over and over and over again. Yeah… It was my volume knob, it was turned right down! Danny, the poor guy, he had to go for about a minute and a half on that drum riff before we even started (laughs). That was a little awkward, but it ended up alright.”

It’s always interesting on a new Tool tour to see which songs come in and which ones drop out. You brought Flood back for the first time since 2011 – were you all just sat around having a coffee one day and someone says, ‘How about Flood?’
“Well, we all want to keep things evolving. Specifically, Maynard has a record of every show we’ve done. So, he’s got the setlist from the last time we were in London and, say, the last time we were in Budapest. He looks at it assuming that some of the same people are going to come, so we want to change it up. We have the skeleton of our set, based on Fear Inoculum, but then we’re going to keep changing between older songs. Bringing Flood back is amazing. It’s just really fun to play.”

Another song you brought back recently is Rosetta Stoned from 10,000 Days. Is that a hard one to play, given Maynard is chewing his way through what feels like 9,000 words a second? There’s not much margin for error…
“It was hard for him, he brought an iPad in and he showed us – there are literally a thousand words in the song and it’s a real challenge remembering everything. But it’s amazing how muscle memory kicks back in. Suddenly, you’ve gone through it a few times and it all just comes back to you, whether it’s the words or what you’re playing. For me, that song is challenging rhythmically, there’s some sections where me and Danny lock into some crazy rhythms. But the challenge is to make it seamless so that you can actually feel the emotion of the song, rather than just fighting with the scaffolding of it. It’s challenging, but it also depends what tempo you start with (laughs).”

Have any of the Fear Inoculum songs changed at all in terms of the way you play them live?
“We’re playing a lot of Fear Inoculum, obviously, and doing those songs is a journey in itself. I know we recorded them, but we’re still learning them. When you play them live, you start to really understand how to develop the dynamics a little more. In the studio, there’s a lot of, ‘Make this bit louder,’ or, ‘Make this bit quieter, or, ‘Get rid of this drum.’ But when you’re actually playing them live, you start to have a real relationship with them. Personally, I’ve had a changing experience with Pneuma. It’s a really, really weird, rhythmic song. Danny is so polyrhythmic in it, it was very difficult in the studio to try and make it smooth and have the dynamics work properly as it builds and all of that stuff. So every night we do that song, it’s a pretty cool challenge to get to that bit and do it well. And it consistently gets better and better.”

Somehow, Fear Inoculum turns five this year. Before that record came out Tool seemed to be operating with something of a siege mentality, but from the outside looking in it seems you’re in such a good place now. Is that a fair assessment?
“It does feel like a weight has been lifted. I know that sounds weird, but it feels like a second chance as well after so many years of searching for, and trying to complete, something that we were all happy with. That we actually finally got to that point was a massive, massive victory. We really worked hard at that. Even though it seemed like we were just twiddling our thumbs, we were really digging for it. Getting there was a complete release of stress. And now we’re five years into touring, we’re all in a really good space. We’re all grown up now, just about… finally! We get on really well, we know how to tour together, how to talk to each other, how to treat each other and how to leave each other alone when we have to. It’s a good place to be. So my hope is that we’ll go and do another one and get another go at this.”

So, you’ve been working on new Tool songs – where are you at in terms of what you’re specifically bringing to the table. Are there untold hard drives full of Justin ideas right now?
“There’s absolutely tons and tons of hard drives full of stuff. Some ideas go back to before Fear Inoculum that are just simple riffs that we never incorporated into a song. But sometimes that’s a bit like grinding the gears when you’re trying to resurrect or revisit them, so it’s really appealing to work on the newest stuff. Each time we come together, people also have so many new ideas and then we’ll spend all day playing them. We’re constantly introducing new stuff but then sometimes that’ll marry with the old material. We’ve been writing for the last couple of weeks, meeting a couple of times each week – we’ve had some really good sessions, and a lot of it has been brand new. We already have a couple of solid, what I would say are, skeletons of songs waiting to be finalised.”

Is there anything you could say about them in terms of the sound that’s coming out?
“It’s a real mixed bag. We’ve been doing this round robin thing of saying, ‘Danny, give us a drum rhythm that you’ve been working on,’ and then we’ll work on that. Then Adam will present one of his, and I’ll present one of mine. As soon as one idea gets exhausted, we’ll move onto the next. That gives a real different variation of sound or starting point. We’re doing what we can to try and give a fresh approach to the writing experience, and part of that is trying not to overdo it so we’re not banging our heads against the wall. It’s knowing when to take a breath. We’re all really excited about it but we’re just letting it come as it does. We’ll probably work a little bit in soundchecks and in the dressing room. It’s great.”

You’ve also been busy with your project with Peter Mohamed, MTVoid, recently – you released your second album Matter’s Knot Part 1 last year, and on the song Magmaficent you’re actually on vocal duty. How did you find that experience of being the lyricist and vocalist?
“I actually sang a bit ages ago, but I think I had to get in a little altered state to do that, it’s kind of nerve-wracking. I feel great, great admiration for vocalists because to actually say your inner thoughts to project them out and record them and let everyone hear them, it’s quite a vulnerable place to be. Peter had to persuade me pretty hard to do that. But I figured I could just read my poem and do it as spoken-word. Even then, I was paranoid about it and I had him drop my pitch down. I was like, ‘It sounds too much like me!’ But, in the end, it’s a very liberating thing to do. I’d love to sing a bit more, but you tend to leave that to the people that are good at it.”

Despite being a very well-spoken chap, you were quite self-deprecating in your Ernie Ball String Theory interview, saying you’re more articulate playing bass than you are with words. Given Magmaficent gives us a rare glimpse into your mind with words as well as bass, what does that song say about where you were in life at the time?
“I was looking around and trying to understand what’s really important. There’s some stuff about family and there’s stuff about gardening (laughs). It’s got all the elements! Really, it’s a stream of consciousness – I was really tired, emotional and thinking about a million different things, and those lines came to me. I love doing that – you just keep going, you don’t second guess any thoughts. It’s completely authentic, and you leave it like that. I thought about editing it, but I was like, ‘No, it doesn’t work.’ Every time I changed it, it ruined it.”

So what’s inspiring you to write at the moment?
“I put my journals down when I get home; it tends to be more of a travelling occupation on the road. When I’m at home, I’m spending a lot of time with my wife and my friends, and I’m planting my vegetable garden. Planting vegetables really clears out the cobwebs and declutters your mind and, often, in the process of doing that, because you’ve cleared it out, it’ll allow stuff in. So I’ll be putting my leeks in and then it’s like (starts mimicking a riff) and I get a rhythm in my head. Fortunately, my studio is only a few yards away. I’ll go wash the soil off my hands and work it out.”

Ticks And Leeks. That one writes itself!
“It’s actually tick season here at the moment as well (laughs).”

Stay safe out there. Will there be any opportunity for you to get on the road with MTVoid?
“At the moment it’s a studio thing, but we’ve talked about how we could present it because it’s just the two of us making it up. I’m playing guitar and even drums, while Peter’s doing beats, vocals and keyboards. We’ve thought about coming up with a delivery system, and my friend from Author & Punisher, Tristan Shone, is a robotic engineer – he basically triggers all his music with a machine that he’s made out of industrial parts. He’s actually made a tentative offer to me to put together something Peter could use so he could put his beats, vocals and keyboards all in something he can trigger. There’s no rush on this but I’d love to do a live thing, to be honest.”

Surely, Maynard has shown you the way: throw yourself a big 60th birthday bash, then you can play with Tool, MTVoid and whoever else you want?
“I’ve got seven years to work on that…”

Well, before then, you have your own special milestone – it’s 30 years of you being in Tool next year. Maybe they can throw you a party…
“Oh wow, yeah, 1995 – you’re correct! That’s November, next year. Wow. I hadn’t even thought about that!”

Tool tour the UK later this month – get your tickets now

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